The day Dubai resident Shaida Kassiem* (24) revealed she might like to get her own apartment was the day her mother took her passport away, threatening to disown her with a barrage of emotional, physical and verbal abuse. It was the third time something like this had happened.
“My mother and I live together and she’s always been possessive,” Shaida reveals. “I was recently promoted at the media company I work for and considering I’m now earning more money, I thought that it might be a good time to move into my own place.
“When I told my mother, she flipped. She said that I was abandoning her and that I was a bad daughter. She even threatened to kill herself.”
Having experienced abuse like this for years, Shaida moved out a few days after the incident, approaching a legal adviser to get a restraining order. But only a week after she’d left, she moved back in.
“I know our relationship is unhealthy,” she admits. “I’m ashamed when I tell people I went back, but I’m just wracked with guilt about leaving my mum. She has no other family or friends and I feel as though she won’t be able to live without me. I want to take care of her, but at the same time I know our relationship is affecting my mental health. It is a vicious cycle I can’t seem to break out of.”
What Shaida is describing is typical of codependency, a term that’s been around since the 1980s. The word codependent was originally used for spouses of alcoholics – or co-alcoholics as they were known then – and, according to modern research, the condition is much more prevalent in the general population than we previously thought. In fact, if you were raised in a dysfunctional family or had an ill parent, chances are you’re codependent too.
Relationship expert and founder of LifeWorks Personal Development Training (www.lifeworksdubai.com), Helen Williams, says that today most people are in at least one codependent relationship.
“Codependency is about being enmeshed, engulfed and emotionally entangled with someone else’s life and agenda and placing little attention on your own needs,” she says.
“It means you become too focused on others and their emotions, behaviour, thoughts and way of living. In essence, it is about taking care of others while ignoring yourself.”
Codependency is also known as relationship addiction, which is why – if you’re codependent – it can be tough to get out of a relationship you know is unhealthy.
You might find yourself creating excuses or standing up for the other person when they’re not treating you as well as they should. Dr Thoraiya Kanafani, clinical psychologist and director of clinical services at the Human Relations Institute and Clinics (www.hricdubai.com) in JLT says there are many signs that a person is codependent. These may range from an exaggerated responsibility for the actions of the other person, an extreme need for approval and recognition, a sense of guilt when being assertive, fear of being abandoned, and people pleasing.
“People in a codependent relationship tend to always do more than their fair share, become hurt when people do not recognise their efforts, and has difficulty with their feelings, self-esteem, anger, adjusting to change and decision making,” she says.
Shaida admits that all of the above are true for her. “Ever since I was a little girl my mother has had a hold on me. You could say that this constant emotional see-sawing between us has become a crutch. It’s the only way we know how to deal with each other. I give, give, give to feel like I’m taking care of her while she just takes and takes to make sure I keep on giving.”
So is codependency a learned behaviour? Williams says it could be, with the familiar conditioned patterns and responses of our childhood potentially creating it. In her experience, “People coming out of codependent relationships will speak about perceiving their partner as similar to one or both of their parents and will note their own parallel responses.”
While a person’s family history is a good sign as to whether or not they will be codependent, there are some who are more prone to it than others. “People who need to be needed and who haven’t yet achieved a level of independence, self-care or an adequate sense of individualisation tend to lean that way,” she says.
According to Dr Kanafani, anyone can become codependent if they do not understand how destructive it can be. “Research suggests that people who have a history of emotional abuse or neglect in their family during their teens are more likely to enter relationships like these. Children of narcissistic parents or dysfunctional families tend to turn that way as well. If a child observes a parent in a codependent relationship, they may learn to imitate that in future.”
A friend in need
Leilah Jones* (34) resigned as senior consultant at a human resources company when she realised the relationship she’d fostered with her boss was toxic.
“We had worked together for more than six years so we knew each other well,” she says. “We’d go out for lunch and visit each other at the weekends. I suppose you could say we thought we were best friends.” Despite this, their relationship was heated. “My boss would order me around, knowing I couldn’t say anything as she was in a more senior position. Then I would passive-aggressively put her down to make myself feel better.
“I felt that she didn’t know what she was doing and that I was picking up the slack and being taken for granted. Afterwards, we would say sorry, tell each other how much we needed each other over a drink and do it all again a few days later.”
It was after a mammoth moaning session with another colleague about the very person she thought she was best friends with that Leilah realised the sad truth: she had no other friends.
“I’d become so emotionally involved with my work – and my boss – that I’d totally neglected my other relationships,” she says.
“When it became clear that I needed to move on and resigned, some of my former colleagues told me how she complained about me too. Turns out she was in the same boat. I heard that she quit soon after I did.”
While leaving her job to get out of an unhealthy relationship worked for Leilah, Dr Kanafani says there isn’t always a need to get out of a codependent relationship, but that it’s important that it’s adjusted.
“The first step is recognising that it’s unhealthy the way it is and needs to be changed,” she says.
“It’s also vital to understand the difference between being selfish and being assertive. Being selfish means that you behave in ways that match your ideals without taking the other person or their feelings into consideration.
“Being assertive means that you are willing to listen and discuss issues with the other person, but will not engage in behaviours that are against your values purely to please them.”
Take your power back
With codependency being as recognised among therapists and doctors as it is today, helping yourself ditch learned behaviours is totally achievable – although it will require some soul-searching. “Recognising and changing this type of behaviour requires that you define your own wants, needs and desires,” Williams explains.
“You need to learn to see yourself as worthwhile and understand why you would focus on others while avoiding a relationship with yourself. Fortunately there is help available through professionals and support groups.”
Dr Kanafani agrees, adding, “Once you recognise yourself as a codependant, it’s vital to make sure you don’t pass your habits on to your own family.
“Children learn who they are and how to identify, value and communicate their needs and feelings through interactions with their parents, so codependent parents can help prevent their children from picking up the same habits in future.”
“We are our children’s first teachers,” Williams agrees. “Before we can prevent them from becoming codependent, we need to recognise our own need for independence and grow up emotionally ourselves.
“Our kids learn how to see, feel and respond to life through us, so it’s important that we’re modelling clear self-perception, identity and worth.”
Shaida is currently seeing a therapist to try to help her work through her issues.
“My psychologist has helped me realise that self-awareness is the key to creating a constructive relationship,” she says.
“I now recognise that the part I play in the relationship with my mum is, in some way, the reason why it keeps breaking down in the first place. I know now that she is probably not going to work on changing her behaviour, so I need to change mine.”
Understanding that at the basis of codependent relationships is often a very deep fear of intimacy and vulnerability is one of the first steps towards solving the problem, says Williams.
“Seeking the appropriate help to form a strong and stable emotional relationship with yourself will take time and tenacity, however, the reward will be the ongoing engagement in a fulfilling and deeply intimate connection.”
Are you codependent?
According to clinical psychologist and managing director at The LightHouse Arabia, Dr Saliha Afridi, these five signs are a good indication of whether or not you might be codependent.
Caretaking “A codependant takes on an unhealthy level of responsibility for other people and feels anxiety or guilt when other people have a problem. This feeling typically compels them to help solve these problems by any means necessary. This is how they find their worth.”
Crisis “Some people actually thrive on crisis in a relationship. They feel most important when they are solving problems and caring for their partner.”
Loss of self “When codepndants are in relationships, they take on the identity and interests of the person they’re in the relationship with. This behaviour is rooted in fear of being alone or being rejected in the relationship.”
Dependency “Codependents aren’t usually happy and content with themselves and latch on to whoever and whatever can provide happiness. They always need to be in a relationship.”
Low self-worth “They believe they are not good enough or worthy of love. They have very dysfunctional ideas of what love is due to their own damaged childhood. They feel a lot of shame, guilt and strong feelings of low self-worth, so they get their self-worth from others.”
What to do if someone you love is showing signs of being codependent
Create awareness “The first step is to have them become aware of their unhealthy behaviour,” Dr Afridi says. “Once they realise they are codependent they can actively challenge their default behaviours, thoughts and feelings.”
Say what you see “Point out their people-pleasing behaviours with direct examples from their life,” adds Dr Afridi. “Point out the abusive, jealous or selfish behaviours their partner is engaged in. Don’t be surprised if the codependant tries to make excuses for the other person.”
Be a role model “The best way to teach someone about healthy boundaries is by modelling them in your own relationships. This means saying yes only when you mean yes, and saying no when you really mean no.”
Be supportive “Encourage your friend to speak up in his or her relationships. If you ask her to do something and she can’t do it, tell her that she should say so. When she says no, be accepting of her answer. Allow her to assert her boundaries.”
* Names have been changed